Wearable devices to monitor our health and vital signs are being enthusiastically embraced by the top brass of the NHS. There is not a trace of old-fashioned fustiness or scepticism in their attitude to new gadgetry. NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens and its medical director Sir Bruce Keogh are both keen to explore what technology can do for us and for those who take care of us when we are sick. No surprise there – the truth is the NHS needs all the help it can get.
What will help most is if patients take better care of their own health and avoid getting ill in the first place. That’s where the Apple Watch comes in. Like a number of other devices on the market, it monitors a user’s activity levels, counts calorie expenditure, and registers heart rate – a personal trainer strapped to your wrist. The built-in incentives and the shame factor of knowing you have hardly moved from your chair all day will undoubtedly work for some, but it is those most motivated to be fit and healthy who are likely to be the ones who will buy it. If you don’t really want to take more exercise, it’s fairly unlikely you will fork out the cash.
But the NHS is targeting new health technology on those who already have health issues. NHS Choices already has a page on health and fitness trackers that suggests free downloadable apps to help those who want to quit smoking or lose weight. It mentions MyFitnessPal, meal planners and the Couch to 5K running podcasts.
By the end of this month, there are plans to have a mental health apps library on Choices, a response to the growing evidence that people with depression and anxiety find online therapies helpful. And the National Information Board has set up a taskforce to review and then kite-mark health apps of all kinds, which by the end of the year – it is hoped – will be listed in the NHS Choices apps library.
Some of those apps will collect data that should enable NHS doctors to know more about a patient’s health without calling him or her in for an appointment. The future envisaged by Keogh and Stevens has sufferers of conditions such as heart disease, liver failure, diabetes or asthma remaining in their own home without the need for a sudden ambulance dash to hospital when their condition deteriorates. They would wear sensors, devices around their wrists or other parts of their body or even clothes with built-in sensor capacity that can detect worrying symptoms and then transmit a message to hospital, perhaps via a mobile phone. It would alert nursing staff and doctors, who would then visit and aim to sort things out in the home.